For many, this Christmas will be bittersweet– we have suffered greatly; some of us are still reeling from loss and grief. Others are living with fear and confusion about the future. In many ways, our situation is not so different from that first Christmas in Bethlehem. We feel “taxed” by events and circumstances. The world seems dark and dreary and cold. More than ever, we need to listen for the song of the Angels– for “good news of great joy, which shall be to all people.”
And, maybe more than ever in our lifetime, we need to be like the shepherds–eager to seek out the gift of the newborn Savior; Eager to embrace the wonder of Emmanuel; eager to share the hope we find at the manger. Hallelujah! Unto US a child is given; unto US a son is born! (Isaiah 9:6)
I’ve been writing a lot about Advent and Christmas lately, rather than focusing on Pursuing Prayer. But they are part of the same whole. I pursue a life of prayer precisely because Jesus came in the flesh and lived and died and rose again. I believe in the power of prayer because Jesus modeled how to pray– even as He faced betrayal and death. I believe in the gift of prayer because Jesus prayed for me long before I was ever born (see John 17). I pursue prayer with confidence because Jesus keeps His promises.
My paternal grandmother was born in Shanghai. But not the Shanghai most people think of. Not a great Eastern city of importance, but a tiny settlement called Shanghai (or Shanghai Corners) in southwestern Michigan. It doesn’t have a post office; it’s not even listed on most maps. And it wasn’t named directly after the great Chinese city– it was named after a breed of chicken (most likely the breed now known as Cochin)!
Jesus wasn’t born in Jerusalem. He wasn’t born in Rome or Athens, or New York City or London or Johannesburg or Tokyo. Jesus was born in Bethlehem. It wasn’t as small as Shanghai Corners, Michigan, but it wasn’t a city of great importance, wealth, or industry. And yet, it was the place where history would be reshaped. Our modern calendar divides into what happened before that night in Bethlehem and what came after. More than two thousand years later, no event has been able to displace it as the pivotal event of recorded history.
And this division wasn’t caused by a revolution, or a series of wars. It wasn’t shaped by disaster or plague, victory or catastrophe. It came silently with the birth of a single baby, wrapped in strips of cloth and placed into a makeshift bed. But all the years revolve around that single birth. All the great triumphs of history– the moon landing, the invention of the printing press, the conquests of Alexander the Great, the building of the Sphinx–all are placed in the context of the arrival of God in human form. God stepped into the limits of human history, and the timeline was permanently altered. Before His appearance, prophets and seers looked forward. After His arrival, history looks back. But His birth is the focal point; the period. The end of the Beginning and the beginning of the End.
The hopes of all the ancients–shrouded in mists and wonder– were given flesh and bones. The fears– dark and amorphous– were blinded by the light of His Presence.
What hopes and fears are we carrying today? Our hopes have a name– Jesus; Emmanuel! Our fears have nowhere to hide from His power. And this wondrous gift, while it first arrived in the little town of Bethlehem, reaches around the entire Earth– to Shanghai, and Shanghai Corners; New Delhi, and St. Petersburg; Dallas and Buenos Aires; Cairo and Caraballo; Los Angeles and Lagos; and thousands of small towns in between.
“Oh Holy Child of Bethlehem, Descend to us, we pray; Cast out our sin, and enter in: Be born in us today.”
When I was very young, I liked to believe that my parents were perfect– at least as close to perfect as people could be. When I was a teen, I realized that my parents were NOT perfect. In fact, it seemed that I knew much better than they did, and much more as well! With time, I’ve come to realize that they did the very best they could with what they had and what they knew. They were never perfect, but they were good parents, and I’m very thankful for them.
Jesus had imperfect human parents. Mary, though chosen by God to bear the Savior of the World, was not chosen because she was perfect. Nor did she become perfect in her own obedience. Jesus was HER Savior, too! Mary and Joseph did the best they could with what they had and with what they knew. But they still managed to “misplace” their own son at least once that we know of (see Luke 2:41-52). Such an incident today might be grounds for Jesus to be removed from his home and placed in foster care.
But Jesus also had a perfect Father– God. Jesus was both the Son of God and the Son of Man– completely Divine, and completely human.
As we travel through the Advent season, it is good to remember that the same Jesus who called on His perfect Father, is the same Jesus who taught us to pray, “Our Father.” Not all of us have had “nearly” perfect human parents, but ALL of us can call on a perfect Father in Heaven. Jesus came to earth, not just to die for our sins, but to show us how to relate to this Divine and Holy Father. We can call on Him in our need; we can call on Him with our sorrows and agonies, as Jesus did in the Garden; we can call on Him when we are alone; we can call on Him in a crowd; we can listen and obey His voice; we can please Him! We can trust in God’s faithfulness through every moment of every day, every step in our journey, and every valley we must face.
Jesus wasn’t created, as we were– He was “begotten” of the Father–“born of” the Father, in the way we are born of our parents’ DNA. (see John 3:16, John 1:18, and Psalm 2:7) And this relationship is eternally existing– “Ere the Worlds began to be” and throughout all of time. It is not a relationship that can ever be dissolved or altered. Jesus will never “become the parent,” nor will God cease to be the Father. Though He is equal in divinity and power, and equally worthy of our praise, Jesus will always act in accordance with the Father’s will– never against it or in His own separate motivation.
It is difficult to understand, that Jesus always exists, yet He was “born” at a particular time in history and “lived” only 33 years as “one of us.” We see time as being linear– everything has a “season” or a time of beginning and end. Not so with Jesus. As a human, He had an experience of “life” similar to ours– days and nights, weeks and months, festivals and birthdays, growth spurts and hormones, toothaches and hugs and laughing so hard His sides ached.
The Advent of the Christ was not the “beginning” of the Christ–only His arrival at that particular experience in time as we know it. Yet this arrival was so unique, so miraculous, so spectacular, that all of our human time is divided into “before” and “after” that single event. We don’t divide time by human achievement (i.e. Before the moon landing/after the moon landing or before the invention of the printing press, etc.) or by natural phenomena (before the last Ice Age or after the eruption of Vesuvius). Time centers on the single act of God’s begotten son arriving as a helpless baby in the middle of an otherwise ordinary night.
Mary and Joseph were mere mortals, ordinary human parents entrusted with fostering and caring for the very incarnation of their Divine Creator. They were imperfect. But they were guided, empowered, and held fast by the very God growing up as a child in their midst.
And when they “misplaced” their son? He was, as expected, not “lost,” but merely visiting His “Father’s house.” He could not have been safer. They need never have worried or felt ashamed.
This season can be difficult for families– some of us have hurtful memories of our childhood with imperfect parents. Some of us are overwhelmed by guilt or frustration as the imperfect parents of our own children. May this season bring us renewed hope and joy in our unshakeable, unbreakable relationship to our perfect Heavenly Father, through the gift of His only Begotten Son. We can rejoice and feel secure– Evermore and Evermore!
Every year, we celebrate the birth of Emmanuel– God With Us. It is amazing to consider the Love of God that brought Him from His Heavenly throne to a lowly manger stall, the King of Glory contained in the tiny body of a sleepy infant.
But we should be careful not to miss the rest of the story. As wonderful as it is to think that God would love His creation enough to visit among us, to “taste” life as a human, the story gets gloriously magnified as Jesus leaves the manger to enter a ministry. Jesus didn’t just live among us, He healed, taught, laughed, formed friendships, and served among people– many of whom scoffed, scorned, and rejected Him and His message.
And His message was this: God wants– in fact He passionately yearns– to restore the relationship WE have broken. Jesus didn’t come to “taste” human life– He came to GIVE His life as a sacrifice for those who didn’t deserve it, to extend forgiveness to those who had no right to ask for it. The Holy and Perfect God became the guilt and shame of Sin, so that we could be reconciled to Him. He accepted the penalty of Death, so that we could be given eternal life.
This miracle of reconciliation can be difficult to understand. I sometimes get “stuck” in the weight of my past–I know that Christ offers forgiveness, but I sometimes act as though the penalty hasn’t been removed; only suspended. But that’s not what Jesus taught. Like a leper cured of leprosy, I am clean–no scars, no stains, no relapse–all traces of my disease removed. In this world, I will still feel the sting of the consequences of Sin– betrayal, sickness, injustice, even death. But death is no longer my destiny; it is a temporary rest stop on my way HOME.
Jesus didn’t come to “taste” human life; He came to “taste” death– and He came to destroy its power, so that we could know true Life, and live it to the fullest!
We live in a weary world– weary of war, weary of chaos, weary of worry, and weary of sin and its consequences. From the time the alarm rings to the time we finally lay down our weary heads, we are bombarded by stress, misunderstandings, distractions, disappointments, questions, harsh words, harsh images, demands, doubts– I’m tired just listing them…
Even so, we are surrounded by promises (mostly false) of peace and rest, satisfaction and success. “Buy this!” “Try that!” “New!” “Improved!” The voices call out, offering temporary bliss, or temporary escape from the weariness all around. “Jingle Bells!” “Happy Holidays!” “Tidings of Comfort and Joy!” It is tempting to let Christmas become just like all the other worldly distractions–shiny, loud, stressful and fleeting, full of promise, but leaving us empty and cold in the end.
But Christmas IS different, because it doesn’t celebrate what the world has to offer. The celebration includes lights and bells, songs and gifts, food and friends and family– but at its heart, Christmas celebrates something “out of this world!” Jesus came to a weary world long ago, and no matter how weary the world was, or is, or will be, Jesus brought all the hope and healing of Heaven in the small package of a tiny infant child in a crowded town in a conquered land.
On that Holy Night, God crashed the party– He did more than watch from a distance, more than speak from the skies above or send angel messengers–He arrived, actively participating in the struggle, the bone-weariness, the hunger and thirst and chill and stress of living among His fallen and fractured creation.
And the weary world rejoices–can you hear it? Above the bustling noise of people shouting, and car horns blaring, and advertising slogans, and piped-in Christmas songs…Can you feel it–beyond the comfort of a warm blanket and hot cocoa, beyond the hugs of friends or the smiles of strangers or gifts from loved ones? Can you see it–beyond the glare of city lights, undimmed by the darkness of hatred and greed?
The lights and songs will fade away, but the Love, Joy, and Peace of God that came to the world that first Christmas is for all time!
“Fall on your knees! Oh, hear the angel voices, ‘O Night Divine. O Night, when Christ was born. O Holy Night!'”
It is the shortest verse in the entire Bible– St. John 11:35: “Jesus wept.” Only two words. They are easily memorized; they are also easily overlooked or misrepresented. Jesus wept over the death of his good friend Lazarus.
Jesus wept–Emmanuel felt deep emotion and showed it. God shed tears over the pain and sadness of a death; Messiah cried for the loss of his good friend. Jesus was no stranger to sadness and loss– God understands the sharp sting of death. God is compassionate, not heartless or cruel. If we are in emotional turmoil, it is not because God doesn’t know our pain or doesn’t care. He hurts WITH us in our times of deepest need.
Jesus wept–People often ask the rhetorical question, “What would Jesus do?” when faced with a situation. Here is an example of what Jesus did– he wept. Sometimes, the “thing to do” is to acknowledge the reality of our situation–death hurts. It brings out feelings of anger and even fear. Death is scary. It’s ugly, and it fills us with a sense of injustice, and a desire to wake up and find that death is just a very bad dream. Aching loss, wracking sobs, feeling punched in the gut by circumstances– these are valid feelings and reactions. To pretend otherwise or to deny ourselves or others the right to express those feelings does great harm, just as wallowing in sadness and remaining isolated in our grief can drag us into hopeless depression.
Jesus wept– period. He didn’t punch a wall or point fingers at Mary and Martha for “letting” their brother die. He didn’t try to justify his extra-long stay that kept him from arriving before his friend died. Neither did he justify returning to a region where he was not “safe” from the authorities in order to comfort the sisters (and ultimately raise Lazarus back to life). People often criticize Christians for “not doing enough” to erase hunger, cure diseases, or end poverty in the world. Some even point out that Jesus, being God incarnate, had the power to do all of this during his earthly ministry. But he didn’t. As he was dying, he said, “It is finished.” He wasn’t referring to some social revolution or economic program, or political movement that would abolish the oppression of the Roman Empire, or the corruption of the Pharisees, or end the slave trade. That doesn’t mean that God approves of evil, corruption, and injustice.
But it means that Jesus’s mission was accomplished through what he did in life and through his sacrificial death. He loved freely, healed those who were willing, and taught about the true character of his Heavenly Father. He ate, and laughed, and slept; he burped and sweat, and cried. He prayed and worshiped and worked and gave. Jesus didn’t weep because he had no power to keep Lazarus from dying. He proved that just minutes later.
Jesus wept because he was showing us the very heart of God. God’s heart is not to flex his sovereign muscles and demand our instant and abject obedience– though he has the perfect authority and right to do so. His heart is to walk intimately with us, even when that walk goes through the very valley of the shadow of death! God’s love isn’t flinty and cold. It isn’t pushy and arrogant and selfish. It is extravagant and gracious beyond all imagination. It is raw agony and pure joy.
What in your life causes you to weep? What burdens and aches and frustrations and questions drive you to tears? Jesus may not take away what hurts us, but he will never turn us away because we are scarred or scared or broken. He will share our burdens, wipe our eyes, and hold us as we pour out our tears.